Advice I Wish I’d Been Given When I Started … Part 1

I wasted a large chunk of my life stumbling around in the dark, trying to become a “writer.” I became a writing coach in recent years solely motivated by the desire to spare new writers the pain and misery I went through—all because there were a number of important things I didn’t know. And the problem was, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wished I’d had the future “me” to tell that naive “me” what I needed to know way back when (nearly thirty years ago). So before I share the things I wished I had known before I started my professional writing journey, I decided to ask some other seasoned, experienced authors what three key bits of advice they would give new writers that they wished they’d known when they started writing.

 Today’s post is from Jessica Bell, whom I met when she hired me to critique and edit her novel, String Bridge (a terrific book that haunts me even years later). Jessica has jumped into the indie writing scene with a strong voice and presence—from Greece, by way of Australia. Here what she has to say:

1. Don’t try to eat the melon whole. It won’t fit in your mouth.

In other words,  improve your writing craft one small step at a time.

Writers constantly have rules thrown at them left, right, and center. Show, don’t tell! Stop using so many dialogue tags! More sensory detail! More tension! Speed up the pace! Yada yada yada . . . it can become overwhelming. I used to feel overwhelmed by it all too. In fact, I still do sometimes. It’s hard enough to get the words on the page, let alone consider how to put them there.

In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she says that in order to not be overwhelmed, a writer needs to focus on short assignments. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how that little picture frame reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. Basically, if you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole.

I believe the same applies to learning the craft of writing. If writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting.

So, when the time comes to cleaning up that first draft, break the process down. For example, first focus on plot development. Second, on “showing,” rather than “telling.” Third, on implementing sensory information. Forth, on subverting those wretched adverbs and clichés. And so forth.

2. Literary magazines are not trees. They’re bean stalks.

Submit short pieces of work to build a portfolio of writing credits and consequently excellent connections.

Writers often overlook literary magazines, or forget they even exist. But what many fail to realize is that they offer the perfect opportunity for you to get your name and work available to the public. Let’s face it, the more you have the chance to be noticed, the better.

Getting your work published in a literary magazine is a bit like having “proof” that you’re a worthy read. Why? Because it means there are editors who loved your work enough for it to represent their publication. A publication that they consider their pride and joy. No literary magazine or journal is going to publish work that isn’t good enough. Their reputation is on the line, and they want to make sure the loyal readers they have gathered over the years will stick around.

“What readers?” you ask. “Who really reads these things anyway?”

Writers. Lots of writers. And more importantly, literary magazine editors. They all want to see what their fellow magazines and journals are publishing. And there’s always a chance that you’ll make great connections with these editors too.

I’m the copublishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and I can tell you for a fact that there are more than a few handfuls of authors we’ve published, whoI now follow on various social media platforms, whose writerly news I like to pimp. I love their work, and I think they deserve to be noticed. I’ve even bought various books by authors that we’ve published.

See what’s happened here? Not only have these authors had their writing published in a literary magazine, which they can flaunt on their website, but they’ve made a new fan, a sale, and wowed a magazine editor enough to gain extra web exposure for subsequent published works.

But your chance of making great industry connections doesn’t stop there.

The community of writers that regularly submit to literary magazines is huge. And I can guarantee that if your work gets published in a literary magazine, every other writer that is published in that same issue is going to check you out. Why? Because they want to see what other writing their work is being associated with.

And guess what’s going to happen when the issue these writers are published in is released? They’re going to share it with all their friends and family. And their friends and family are, of course, going to share it with their friends and family (because everybody likes to know a published author, don’t they?). And all these people are going check the magazine out and read their friends’/family members’ piece(s). This means that these people could potentially read your work too. Bam! More authors to discover and connect with. More exposure.

If you’re new to the fabulous world of literary magazines, I suggest the very first thing you do is subscribe to The Review Review’s newsletter to get all the latest news in lit mags delivered to your electronic doorstep.

Then, the very next thing you should do is become a member of Duotrope is an established award-winning writers’ resource, whose listings cover the entire spectrum. They offer a robust search feature to help you find the perfect match for your work from thousands of current fiction, poetry, and nonfiction markets. They have also gathered millions of points of data on the publications that they list and compiled it into useful reports that help you make smart submission decisions. They also have a submissions tracker, which will keep you organized. You’ll know what you sent where, when to expect a response, and when, if necessary, to write a follow-up query.

While you’re at it, I also suggest you check out which offers colourful “news, information and guides to independent bookstores, independent publishers, literary magazines, alternative periodicals, independent record labels, alternative newsweeklies, and more.”

I must stress that you don’t ignore nonpaying and token-payment markets. In fact, if you’re new to this, I suggest you focus on these for now. The list is massive, and if you submit widely, you’re bound to spark the interest of at least one editor. And if you collect a decent amount of publishing credits, you have a better chance of being published by the big guns like Granta, Tin House, or The Paris Review. Also, if you decide you’d like to query a literary agent in the future, these credits will look nice and sparkly in your bio, and show the literary agent that there are other editors who liked your work enough to publish it.

3. Not having an online presence is like a honey bee without a hive.

Develop an online presence before you publish your first book.

There is nothing worse than having a book published and not having a support system to help you promote it.

I’ve been blogging for five years. Before I published my first book, I had been blogging for more than one year. In that year, I’d gained enough followers to organize a blog tour of epic proportion. More than 300 blogs signed up to help promote my debut, and within the first week of its release it hit the Amazon best-seller lists in both the US and UK.

If you have a support system—a community of fellow writers and readers who have gotten to know you online—they are going to be more than willing to share your wonderful book news with their own world. But the key is to interact with your fans. Don’t just write a blog post and expect people to suddenly read it. You must read other blogs, comment on their posts, let them know that you are there, become their friends.

Form genuine relationships and reciprocate their support. This is important. If you have no relationship with your readers/followers, you have no support system.

Get your name out there as early as possible, whether it be via a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or an online writing community. It doesn’t matter which avenue you choose, or even if you use multiple, but make sure you choose at least one that you dedicate quality time to.

Look at it as if it’s a part of your job. Allocate a time of day in which you focus your efforts on establishing your platform.


Jessica Bell is an Australian contemporary fiction author, award-winning poet, and singer/songwriter/guitarist. She makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First, and Cengage Learning. She is also the copublishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca.

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  1. Thank you so much for having me today. It was a real pleasure. I also have to say, Susanne, that if it wasn’t for you and your fabulous critique, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. So, thank you.

  2. Thank you for this. Tip number 1, about breaking up what to focus on first is very helpful for me right now. I just let a few people read my short story and give feedback and what I got back was mostly positive but with an overwhelming number of questions and things to improve on.

    I just need to take it one at a time. Multiple drafts are cheap. 🙂

  3. Thank you for these three invaluable pieces of advice! 🙂

    I have a little question. Would you be able to answer it?

    You mention forming a genuine relationship with writers and readers through your online presence. I notice that your blog is very writer centric. How do you attract non-writer readers to your online presence?

  4. I started writing fiction about two years ago. It took me a few months to figure out how much I didn’t know. Then I felt overwhelmed. Now I have an *idea* of how much I don’t know, but I’m still overwhelmed at times! Bit by bit.

  5. Thanks, Jessica.

    I like your advice about focusing on one thing at a time. So many “top writers” offer tips that are conflicting: “Describe your characters and give them memorable traits.” “Never describe your characters. Let readers use their imagination.”

    Yada yada.

    I listen to the tips and usually pick what feels right for my style.

  6. I’m experimenting with writing for the first time & it seems very expensive to get started.

    Do you have any advice on how to get your work in front of someone that can help you get started? I’m a wordy person so it won’t be a short story, blog & I’m truly do not care for poetry.

    Today I started my subscription with you. What I’ve read just today has been very interesting & inspiring. I’ve read so much online since I decided to try my hand at writing but there’s so much & some of it is confusing.

  7. “…In order to not be overwhelmed, a writer needs to focus on short assignments.”

    Great advice. The task of writing a novel can be so overwhelming at times, but taking one bite at a time, is definitely the way to go.

  8. Every time I sit down to write, I find myself pouring over past chapters. Scrutinizing them and coming up with ways to improve the story line; a large part of me must be ready for the rewrite. It’s become this constant struggle, the urge to edit warring with a single thought: get the words down, get the story down. I know there will be plenty of time in the coming months to obsess over each sentence, I know that time is not now, but I wish it were. And still I’m feeling like I’m rushing everything… Your post encouraged me to to slow down the process. It made me think about a lot of staff. 🙂 I have a great self-published novel out there and got some really solid reviews on Amazon /The Legend of The Moonstone/. Thanks for your generosity in this and previous posts. I appreciate the example you’ve set in applying it to your books and yourself as author.
    Thank you so much for this, Jessica. I have followed some of the links you give in your post. So much great help and advice.

  9. This posting is perfect for me as I am in the process of writing my first novel. Thank you for the great advice.

  10. Thank you for the excellent advice, Jessica. My experience is similar to others who’ve commented. I’ve always been a writer, but it was only a few years ago that I found the time in my professional and family life to dedicate to writing a novel. Unfortunately, like many beginner novelist, I didn’t know the first thing about the craft of writing, the so called rules, the structure of a novel, character arcs, etc., I could go on forever listing what I didn’t know. I attended my first writer’s conference almost three years ago where I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and speak to Susanne Lakin. I learned more at that conference and with my twenty minutes with Suzanne ( the conference was set up for each person to have ten minutes with an editor or agent, but her next scheduled appointment didn’t show up – LUCKY ME). It was the worst and best time for me. Bad, because, by the end of the conference I realized that my “nearly finished,” novel, wasn’t so nearly finished, after all. The good part is that I finally knew the steps that I needed to take to improve my writing and what I needed to do to learn about the publishing industry.

    Call me overwhelmed! I jumped in and tried to devour the entire melon all in one bite. Jessica’s advice in this post and the advice Suzanne gave me is advice I wish I had know three years ago. I left the conference (where the good so far outweighed the bad) armed with the knowledge I needed to point me in the right direction. My mistake was trying to consume all of it at one time.

    Thanks for sharing this invaluable and resourceful information, Jessica. I hope other new authors don’t make the same mistakes that I made. We live in a world now that allows us instant access to so much information. There are so many professionals in this business that are all too willing to help us and are happy to do so. Writers no longer have to make the same mistakes that those before them made. For me, access to other authors, agents and editors has been the greatest advantage of social media. I understand the importance of #3, although, I don’t always follow the advice. I do my best to stay active on Twitter, but with work and family and recent family emergencies, I have neglected to keep an ongoing and active blog. I wish I had the time, but I had to make a choice and there are only so many hours per day. I justified my blogging hiatus (to myself anyway), by reminding myself that If I don’t spend enough time writing, then I will never have a novel that my friends in the writing community might help me promote.

    Thank you Jessica & Suzanne

  11. I like the “baby steps” approach and focusing on one thing at a time. It really makes rewriting that first draft much less daunting. I didn’t do that with my first short story… 20,000 words written in rather a frenzy, reminiscent of unleashing a dozen monkeys with typewriters… and getting that story “editor-ready” was an agonizing process.

    Live and learn.

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